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Advertising on TV in the UK

Written: 16th June 2006
Last Updated: 16th June 2006

The subject of many arguments and discussion... the quantity of advertising in the UK.

The history of the subject has been the scene of much controversy over the years.


The BBC was founded in 1922, and was built on a basis of collecting revenue through the use of Licensing.  The advertising model was launched when WNBT (now WNBC) launched on July 1st 1941 with NBC as their affiliate.  The world's first television commercial was for the Bulova Watch Company.  From that initial model, advertising grew across America and subsequently the world.

By some, this method of presenting television was described as vulgar, while the Conservative Party were very keen in introducing the idea to the UK through the introduction of the Television Act 1954.  This conceived the idea of Independent Television on the advertising model founded in America. 

Thus, commercial television was born with the Gibbs SR toothpaste advert collecting the accolade as the first television advertisement.  It wasn't the only advert however, and the decision on how advertising should exist on television came down to the Independent Television Authority.

In 1955 for the launch, the ITA regulated commercials at 8 mins per hour in total.  This was however exploited through loopholes by some ITV companies producing "Ad-mag"'s (similar to Teleshopping) which brought a total time of 22 mins per hour.

As a result in 1960 total time was initially reduced to 7 and a-half mins, falling further to 7 mins by the end of the year.  ITV companies attempted not to lose our by raising the spot prices.  7 minutes continued to be the standard for many years until the introduction of cable and satellite channels to the UK.


The advent of satellite television brought higher quantities of adverts.  Under Ofcom today, advertising is harmonised throughout the available platforms under the following rules:

duration             number
21-44 mins        1 break
45-59 mins        2 breaks
60-89 mins        3 breaks
90-119 mins      4 breaks
120-149 mins    5 breaks

with a maximum duration of 3 min 30 sec ads, and a gap of 20 mins between ads.  Programmes of less than 20 mins cannot contain advert breaks.  A total of 12 mins per hour is allowed as a maximum.

There is no preference when the first advert break can take place.  It could be UK standard i.e. after approx. 10 mins, or built on the US model, 2 mins into the programme with Smallville being an example of exploiting the 1st break rule.  The US style is well televised on abc1 as well, with no adverts in between programmes.

There are exceptions for feature films, and drama's where breaks are more widely spread, and for news and documentaries of certain lengths where advertising is not allowed.

Either way, television without advertising is rare, with either the BBC or the emergence of the Internet for a choice of TV without interruption.  Perhaps with the development of technology driving our commercials from between the programmes, the only way to survive in the digital future is to introduce commercials (or products) within the programmes.  Otherwise, TV won't have any money to make Coronation Street anymore, and TV might just get something from all the advertising boards from sporting occasions.

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